The European Union has reaffirmed its “strong unity” and “unwavering support” for Ukraine amid growing reports of division and disagreement among member states.
The eastern European country fears an imminent Russian invasion that could have unpredictable and disastrous effects across the continent.
Foreign affairs ministers from the 27 EU countries met in Brussels on Monday to discuss the border situation, which continues to be stuck in a diplomatic impasse.
“We have reconfirmed our strong unity and our united approach on the challenges of European security,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for foreign affairs, at the end of the meeting. “Our unity is strengthened.”
Borrell insisted that Russia must follow the path of dialogue and engage constructively in international fora, “even if Russia’s rhetoric doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence”.
“Should diplomacy fail, we are very well advanced in the preparation of responses [against] potential Russian aggression,” Borrell noted. “It will be a quick and determined action.”
The officials were joined by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken via video-conference to assess the fraught situation.
Western powers have for weeks called on Russia to withdraw the contingent of more than 100,000 troops stationed in Ukraine’s vicinity, de-escalate tensions and comply with international law.
But in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin remains firm in his demands that NATO must halt its eastward expansion, rule out Ukraine’s membership and roll back its military forces.
Putin’s conditions have been dismissed as “non-starters” by the United States and condemned for being a blatant attempt to reassert the strategic influence that Russia lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On Monday, EU foreign ministers echoed the sentiment, declaring that “notions of ‘spheres of influence’ have no place in the 21st century” and that “European security is indivisible”.
Ministers also warned that “further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs”.
But the actual meaning of the words was left to the reader’s interpretation as no specific course of action was agreed upon after an eight-hour-long meeting.
“Part of the deterrence is not to give information,” Borrell said. “Don’t worry, the measures will be taken and implement at the appropriate moment, if it comes.”
Borrell added that, according to his information, there was no fear of an imminent invasion.
He also said the White House’s decision to evacuate family members of the US Embassy personnel in Kyiv amounted to “very low-level precautionary measures” and that EU states did not feel the need to follow suit.
“I don’t think we have to dramatise, as far as the negotiations are going… I don’t think that we have to [leave] Ukraine,” he told reporters in the morning.
On the same day, the European Commission announced an emergency financial package of €1.2 billion to help Ukraine address the needs related to the border conflict. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the first tranche of €600 million could be quickly disbursed if the EU Council and the EU Parliament agree to release the funds.
“Ukraine is a free and sovereign country. It makes its own choices. The EU will continue to stand by its side,” said von der Leyen in a short statement.
Sanction threats and internal debate
Divisions among Europeans on how to respond to Russia’s behaviour have been laid bare over the past few weeks. On Friday, The Wall Street Journalreported that Germany was blocking Estonia from sending German-made military equipment to Ukraine, arguing that the country does not export lethal weapons.
The move stood in stark contrast with that of the United States, which has already green-lighted a request from Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia to provide Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank weapons and Stinger air-defence systems. The US has also approved a similar petition from the United Kingdom.
Germany’s position is also under close scrutiny over the Nord Stream 2, a brand-new gas pipeline that is not yet operational but has become a major source of friction among NATO allies.
The infrastructure project has been touted as a possible target of retaliation against Russia.
“We do have an internal debate about sanctions since it’s one of the tools which might be necessary to use if there is an escalation in Ukraine,” Czech Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Lipavský told Euronews.
“Our message is very clear. We stand with Ukraine and we will do everything [that] is necessary for them to have the freedom of choice to decide whether to join the EU or NATO.”
Even US President Joe Biden weighed in on the debate, admitting that “there are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do, depending on what happens,” he said referring to a “minor incursion”.
The comments raised the alarm in Kyiv and across Europe, forcing the White House to clarify.
On Monday morning, EU ministers attempted to dispel rumours of internal splits by forcefully stressing their unity and readiness to punish Moscow.
“We will react very strongly with economic sanctions if there is any kind of intrusion from Russia into Ukraine, either if it’s cyber or military,” said Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Ann Linde ahead of the meeting.
Her Danish counterpart, Jeppe Kofod, vowed “comprehensive, economic and political sanctions never seen before” should the situation turn violent, while Ireland’s Simon Coveney said the EU will respond “collectively and in an unified manner”.
Their promises of unity will be put to test in case of a Russian invasion: EU sanctions are taken by unanimity, which means the decision must be backed by all 27 member states.
One “no” from any capital is enough to derail the whole undertaking — an awkward scenario that has hindered collective action in the past.